Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Foreign Affairs Committee Drafts Legislation Targeting Syrian Amphetamine Production. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has approved draft legislation targeting production and trafficking of the amphetamine Captagon linked to Syria’s Assad regime. The legislation calls this network a “transnational security threat” and requires the White House to submit to Congress within 180 days a strategy for addressing ways to combat the Captagon trade. It also names regional allies who receive large amounts of smuggled Captagon shipments. Captagon is rapidly becoming one of the most commonly used drugs in the Middle East and has been used during the Syrian civil war as both a stimulant to keep militants fighting and a means to generate revenue. Saudi Arabia is a top consumer of Captagon, representing one-third of global amphetamines seizures. On July 22, the ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on the State Department to address the role of the Assad regime in Captagon trafficking networks in the Middle East.

Sen. Scott Introduces Legislation Re: Iran Sanctions Act of 1996. On August 2, Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) introduced S.4746 to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to eliminate the sunset provision of the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, originally set to end on August 2001, but subsequently changed to December 31, 2026. The bill was a bipartisan effort, being supported by three cosponsors, two of whom are Democrats.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Iran and Syria Condemn Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit. After Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) traveled to Taiwan on August 2, Syria and Iran, both of which are strong allies of China, quickly condemned the visit. The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Pelosi’s trip an “act of hostility” that disrespected Chinese sovereignty, and Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani reiterated Iranian support for the One China policy, which maintains that the People’s Republic of China is the sole representative for all of China, including Taiwan. Speaker Pelosi said that her visit represented the United States’ “unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.”

Senate Democrats Support Yemen Truce Extension. After sending a letter to President Biden urging his collaboration with the United Nations to extend the current ceasefire in Yemen, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), and Chuck Schumer (D-New York) released a statement welcoming the August 2 extension of the truce. The senators said that they have already “glimpsed the benefits of peace” and called for “principled diplomacy and negotiations” during the truce period in order to develop a lasting solution to the war.

Stevens Defeats Levin in MI-11 Democratic Primary. On August 2, Representative Haley Stevens (D-Michigan) defeated fellow incumbent, Representative Andy Levin (D-Michigan), in the Democratic primary for Michigan’s 11th congressional district. The primary attracted national attention due to campaign contributions in excess of $3 million from the AIPAC-affiliated United Democracy Project PAC, funds that were ostensibly given to Stevens because of her stance on Israel. Although both candidates support a strong US-Israel relationship, Levin has previously criticized Israeli settlement expansion and cosponsored a “Two-State Solution Act” to promote diplomacy between Israel and Palestine and to restrict US aid to Israel if Israel’s land confiscations continue. Meanwhile, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) fended off an AIPAC-supported challenger aiming to unseat her in Michigan’s 12th district.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Hearing Highlights China’s Role in the Middle East. On August 4, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing titled “China’s Role in the Middle East,” which featured testimony from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf. Leaf focused on China’s “virtual monopoly” on drone technology and accused China of “getting away with murder” in the Middle East. China has sold drones to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the UAE, and has also signed a strategic agreement with Iran to increase security cooperation. Leaf also raised concerns about China’s growing economic prowess in the region, especially since the UAE and Saudi Arabia are among the most enthusiastic participants in new Chinese construction projects undertaken as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.


II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Voices Support for Ceasefire in Gaza. On August 7, President Joe Biden issued a statement in support of the declared ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. He noted that the United States has worked with “Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, and others throughout the region to encourage a swift resolution to the conflict.” The president also reiterated his support for Israel’s security and what he called “its right to defend itself against attacks.”

National Security Advisor Sullivan Expresses Support for Iranian Dissident. On August 3, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with Iranian American dissident and human rights activist Masih Alinejad. On July 29, a man armed with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle was apprehended while outside of her home in New York. Alinejad was also the target of a 2020 kidnapping plot by Iranian intelligence officials, who aimed to forcibly take her to Iran. Sullivan expressed concern for Alinejad’s physical safety, and affirmed the administration’s commitment to protecting dissidents living in the US.

2) Department of State

DoS Welcomes Yemen Truce Extension. On August 2, Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the extension of the UN-backed truce in Yemen, which has been in place since April 2 and will now remain in effect until October 2. Blinken praised Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) for its role in facilitating imports at the port of Hodeida and in organizing the resumption of commercial flights from Sanaa International Airport. He reiterated the United States’ commitment to a “durable, inclusive” peace process, and encouraged the Yemeni government to build on this truce to improve freedom of movement and to reopen roads to the southwestern city of Taiz. This statement comes after Secretary Blinken called the PLC president on July 31 to affirm support for the truce extension and to express his hopes for bilateral cooperation between Yemen and the United States.

Blinken Supports EU Proposal for New JCPOA. Following the resumption of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Secretary Blinken announced US support for a salvaged Iran nuclear agreement that was proposed by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell. According to Borrell, the proposal was reached after 15 months of negotiations and includes hard-won compromises for both sides, including significant financial and economic benefits for Tehran. During a press conference at UN headquarters on August 1, Secretary Blinken claimed that the US is willing to accept the deal, but is waiting on Iran, which has said that it is “ready to conclude the negotiations in…short order, should the other side be ready to do the same.”

Special Envoy Lenderking Calls on Houthis to Release US Embassy Staff. On August 4, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking called for the unconditional release of 12 US Embassy staff members who have been detained by the Houthis since November 2021. Lenderking said that the detention of these employees sends an “extremely negative signal.” Other detainees held by the Houthis include United Nations and UNESCO field staff.

Special Coordinator Hochstein Travels to Lebanon. On July 31, Special Presidential Coordinator for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment Amos Hochstein traveled to Beirut to discuss the Lebanese energy crisis and maritime border negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. The border dispute between the two countries has been ongoing since 2020 and has delayed Lebanon’s access to disputed gas fields that could help the country address its energy crisis. Hochstein noted key developments in talks on the issue, looking forward to “coming back to the region…to make the final arrangements” in the coming months.

Blinken Calls Israeli Defense Minister Gantz. On July 30, Secretary Blinken spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to discuss Israeli security issues and Iran’s role in the region. Secretary Blinken also reaffirmed US support for Palestinian security and freedom and raised the issue of the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Blinken Calls Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. On August 4, Secretary Blinken called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to thank him for Turkey’s role in facilitating Ukrainian grain exports across the Black Sea. Blinken also mentioned the possibility of the United States promoting dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

US Approves Missile Sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On August 2, the Biden administration approved missile sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE totaling more than $5 billion. The sale consists of $3 billion in Patriot missiles for Saudi Arabia and $2.2 billion in high-altitude missile defense for the UAE. In the congressional notification of the sale, the State Department said that the missiles will help fight “persistent Houthi cross-border unmanned aerial system and ballistic missile attacks on civilian sites and critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia,” while the UAE sale will support US foreign policy and national security by aiding a regional ally. This sale contradicts President Biden’s campaign promise to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, and marks the administration’s disregard for a 2021 effort by lawmakers from both parties to block a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

3) Department of Defense

US and Israel Hold Naval Exercises in the Red Sea. On August 1, the US Fifth Naval Fleet and Israeli naval forces began a four-day-long joint military exercise in the Red Sea focusing on mission planning and maritime interdiction. These exercises follow the April 2022 establishment of a US-Israel joint task force to patrol the Red Sea and to counter weapons-smuggling networks linked to Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Airman Charged in Connection with On-Base Explosion. On August 4, the US Air Force announced that they have filed an array of criminal charges against Technical Sergeant David Dezwaan Jr., including dereliction of duty, destroying military property, reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault in connection with an April 2022 explosion on a base in eastern Syria. The blast occurred on April 7 at a US base known as Green Village, and injured four service members. The Pentagon initially stated that the attack was caused by artillery, but later said that explosives were deliberately placed.

US and Saudi Arabia Plan for Exercise Eagle Resolve. On August 2, CENTCOM and the Saudi military participated in a conference to plan the 2023 Eagle Resolve military exercise, which will be held in Saudi Arabia in May and June of 2023. The annual exercise aims to develop responses to regional security threats and enhance crisis management skills. 

4) Other Executive Agencies

CIA Kills Al-Qaeda Leader in Afghanistan. On July 31, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a CIA-operated drone in Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian national, founded the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad and took over as al-Qaeda’s leader in 2011 after the death of Osama bin Laden. He had previously been indicted for his role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. President Biden reportedly gave the final approval to kill al-Zawahiri, having received a July 1 briefing on the proposed operation from CIA Director William Burns and National Security Director Avril Haines. Lawmakers quickly responded to al-Zawahiri’s killing, with Representative Gregory Meeks (D-New York) labeling the strike a major victory in the fight against terrorism and thanking national security professionals for their work.

US Sanctions Iranian Petrochemical Associates. On August 1, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned six companies used by Iran’s Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industry Commercial Company to facilitate illicit petrochemical sales from Iran to East Asia. Companies sanctioned include UAE-based Blue Cactus Heavy Equipment and Machinery and Hong Kong-headquartered Farwell Canyon. This action is pursuant with Executive Order 13846, which states that all property of these targets that is owned by Americans or based in the United States must be blocked and reported to OFAC. The State Department also separately designated two additional entities related to Iranian petrochemical trade and logistics. These actions follow several other designations in June and July. According to Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson, the US will “continue to enforce sanctions on the illicit sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals” unless Iran is willing to return to JCPOA commitments.

DoJ Aims to Seize Iran-Linked Plane in Argentina. On August 2, the Department of Justice asked the Argentinean government for permission to seize a plane with ties to the Iranian government that is being held in Buenos Aires. The plane’s cargo included intelligence technology and military hardware, and some crewmembers had ties to Mahan Air and Fars Air Qeshm, both of which are Iranian airlines sanctioned by the US due to their connections to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and to arms smuggling. The plane was the subject of a July 26 letter sent by Senate Republicans to Attorney General Merrick Garland, in which the lawmakers accused the Department of Justice of ignoring information requests from the Argentinean government regarding the plane.

USCIRF Condemns Religious Persecution in Iran. On August 4, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned Iran’s recent crackdown on the Baha’i faith. In the Mazandaran province, the Iranian government has arrested Baha’is and raided their homes, labeled Baha’ism a “deviant sect of Islam,” and engaged in disinformation campaigns against the Baha’i faith. The Iranian government has particularly targeted Baha’i women, arresting those who refuse to wear government-mandated head coverings and banning them from public facilities. USCIRF Commissioner Eric Ueland called on President Biden to increase pressure on Iran to end its persecution of the country’s Baha’i community.

USCIRF Commemorates Yazidi Genocide. On August 3, USCIRF commemorated the eighth anniversary of the Yazidi genocide committed by the so-called Islamic State in 2014. In their statement, USCIRF pushed the US, Iraq, and Kurdistan governments to fully implement the Sinjar Agreement to protect the Yazidi area of Sinjar in northern Iraq.

FBI Seeks Extradition of Hacker Held in Morocco. In collaboration with the FBI, Moroccan authorities confirmed that they have arrested French student Sébastien Raoult on cyberpiracy charges. The FBI is currently pursuing his extradition from Rabat, and Raoult could face up to 116 years in prison in the US if found guilty. Raoult’s lawyer maintains that he is a victim of identity theft and requests that he be extradited to France.

US Extends Temporary Protected Status for Syrians. On July 29, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Syrian immigrants in the US will have their Temporary Protected Status (TPS) extended until March 31, 2024. TPS allows immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or natural disaster to be granted work permits and exemptions from deportation. An estimated 6,448 Syrian nationals in the US are currently covered by TPS.

US Court Finds Libyan Commander Guilty of War Crimes. After failing to show up to several court dates in the state of Virginia, on July 29 Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar was found guilty in absentia of war crimes. He was facing three lawsuits from plaintiffs who accused him of purposely launching strikes on civilian areas and of torturing prisoners of war.